Interview: Oh What A Lovely War at Theatre Royal Stratford East



The role played by east London theatre in unmasking the horror of the First World War will resume this weekend as the sound of Oh What A Lovely War returns to its home stage - 50 years after its debut.

Actor Shaun Prendergast says he is convinced Joan Littlewood's satirical musical will hold the same resonance for a modern audience settling down in the same auditorium.

The latest production, directed by Terry Johnson and featuring Caroline Quentin, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War.

"This play is as much about Iraq, Afghanistan and the Falklands War, as it is about the First World War," said the 55-year-old, whose two grandfathers both served during the 1914-18 conflict.

"What's interesting is it is about the tragic waste of life - that doesn't date. It's enormously important.

"For me, it's a double whammy. It has a sentimental theatrical significance to be taking part in a production at Joan Littlewood's theatre, which celebrates her work - that's the joyous celebration.

"Then there's the tragic commemoration of war itself."

The wartime stories, told through a combination of familiar songs, shocking statistics from conflict coupled with the harsh realities of life on the front line, proved an immediate hit following its 1963 stint in Stratford.

And, although Shaun - now taking on the role of the Master of Ceremonies - didn't see the original performance, its theatrical strands have run through his life and work.


He watched a production when he was living in Newcastle and caught up with the film version, but it was five years ago when he first met Victor Spinetti, Oh What A Lovely War's original Master of Ceremonies that he became fascinated by the original production.

"I had worked with Victor years before this show was mooted, and he told me stories of the original," said the south east Londoner, whose last stage character was a pantomime dame.

"It was fascinating to hear how Joan Littlewood had operated and what she was like in terms of a director.

"The idea I am playing the same part in Stratford is a real thrill.

"I was never taught the history of the First World War, although I knew of it.

"Oh What A Lovely War has really opened my eyes and made me even more of a peacemaker than I already was.

"The establishment is always trying to push war as being worthwhile because they have a vested interest but for the ordinary people, I don't believe they felt that.

"I don't think there's anything to be gained by re-glorifying war.

"We are constantly being lied to and constantly being fed things by politicians and those who want to hoodwink us."

Shaun's latest role comes after a three-year break from the stage to focus on his television career.

His current character in Waterloo Road, Robert Bain, will be on screens as Oh What A Lovely War begins its six-week run.

Shaun said: "While I'm on stage in the Battle of the Somme, my character in Waterloo Road will be facing very different battles."

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